Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Great Novel of Central America

" Divine Punishment is on the way". This was the message received in my mobile phone the other day. I did not open it, thinking that it could be a spam from one of the evangelical preachers. Later in the evening, there was another message saying that Divine Punishment has already been delivered at my residence. Alarmed, I opened it quickly to find  that Divine Punishment was actually the name of the book I had ordered from Amazon, two weeks earlier. 

It was Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer who had described the book ' Divine Punishment' written by Sergio Ramirez as the great novel of Central America. Having read many books of Carlos Fuentes and developed an admiration for him, I ordered 'Divine Punishment' immediately.  The novel is set in Leon, the second largest city of Nicaragua but covers Guatemala and Costa Rica too, giving a feel of Central America to the readers.  The protagonist Oliverio Castaneda is a Guatemalan living in Nicaragua. Another character in the novel Dona Flora, wife of the Nicaraguan Don Contreras is from Costa Rica. The ladies of Leon, jealous of Flora's sophistication and progressive and liberal lifestyle, calls he disparagingly as 'that Costa Rican woman'. Even now, Costa Rica is the envy of the other Central Americans for its political maturity, economic prosperity and social stability.

Having known about Ramirez as a Sandinista leader, I expected the book to be about revolution, Marxism, Contra War and other such issues of Nicaragua and Central America. Ramirez, who was part of the Sandinista Revolution, later got disenchanted and turned into an opponent of Daniel Ortega. He had written Divine Punishment in the period 1985-87, when he was Vice President under President Ortega and when the government was in the middle of a deadly war with the Contras supported by US . With this background, Ramirez is in the best position to write about the story of the country. But Ramirez had consciously decided against writing on a contemporary theme, with this candid explanation,' Since I myself was part of the revolution, I would have run the risk of taking sides and turning the narrative into a discourse tainted by ideological convictions and political propaganda. From a position of power, it is impossible to place oneself above events, as a novelist should always do"

 A newly-married Guatemalan Oliverio Castenada arrives with his wife at Leon for legal studies and takes up residence in a hotel. He is soon invited to shift to the residence of  Don Contreras, a businessman living opposite to the hotel. The two daughters of Contreras as well as his wife ( more beautiful than the two daughters put together) fall in love with Castenada, who also gets involved in the business of Contreras. The sudden and untimely death of Castenada's wife is followed soon by the death of the elder daughter of Contreras  and the businessman himself. While the doctors have certified these deaths as due to backwater fever, there is suspicion that Castenada is the one who murdered all the three by poisoning. The rumour starts at the 'accursed' table in a bar where a group of friends meet regularly to exchange gossip. The group includes a doctor, who starts the rumor about poisoning and a journalist who writes about it as well as about the affairs of the Contreras ladies with the accused. The scandal shocks the society and the church of Leon. Much of the story is in the form of newspaper stories, courtroom trials and letters exchanged between the characters. The innocent and pure romance of the daughters of Contreras  is juxtaposed with the cruel manipulation of their emotions by Castaneda for his criminal motives. The story goes like an Agatha Christie detective novel with mystery and suspense till the very end, but with an authentic Central American feel.  Once I started, I could not stop till I finished the 500 plus pages book. 

The novel is based on a real life story of murders which took place in the 1930s in Nicaragua during the time of the Somoza, the military strongman who was controlling the government, before becoming a full fledged dictator. Ramirez had done thorough research of the case before fictionalizing what had happened and letting his imagination run. 

The author gives an insight into the political and social situation of Nicaragua and Central America in the first part of the last century. The US, which had invaded and occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 had just left, paving the way for the military dictatorship of Somoza. The National Guards trained by the US had started calling the shots, running roughshod over the judiciary and democratic institutions. Ramirez has used many colors and shades to paint the complex personality of the protagonist Castaneda who is a Casanova-like charmer who seduces women with a vast repertoire of jokes, wit and playfulness. At the same time, he is a sociopath who executes his criminal intentions with evil machinations, cruel pranks and ruthless manipulations. The readers are amazed by the ingenious way in which Castaneda plans the poisoning and influences the doctors as well as family and friends making them believe that the deaths were caused by blackwater fever. Ramirez has given vivid, colorful and humorous descriptions of the characters of journalists, doctors, businessmen, domestic servants, clergy and police. The way Ramirez portrays the people in his book reminds me of such memorable and lively characters I found in the novels of the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado. 

The story is enriched by the poetic characters of Judge Fiallos and court clerk Vanegas. The judge is a narrator of homely tales with love for the homeland of scorched Pacific plains and of volcanos whose ancient haughty peaks interrupt the landscape, "raw with age and solemn with myth" as Ruben Dario says. Dario is the famous Nicaraguan writer, born in Leon. Salman Rushdie, in his book ¨The jaguar smile", quotes a saying that there are poets and writers in every street of Nicaragua and that everybody is considered to be a poet until proved to the contrary. Daniel Ortega, the President is a poet and his wife Rosario Murillo is also a writer.  More on this in my blogpost

Ramirez is the second Central American writer, I have read after Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala who won Nobel prize for his book " The President". I am looking forward to read Ramirez's book " Adios Muchachos: a memoir the Sandinista revolution" which has already arrived in my iPad Kindle.